The homeless man at the interchange is a veteran too and that makes me uncomfortable, especially today. His unkempt beard hangs past his collar and weaves with the fraying strands of his jacket. Headphones adjust themselves over ears, eyes glance elsewhere and lips purse as he drags his trunk across the tiled floor. With his free hand, he holds a cardboard sign telling the world that he’d been in the service, telling them he is struggling and wants help.
I want to give it to him. I really do. An assortment of change jangles in my pocket. Shrapnel, they called it; awful word. My eyes meet this man’s, they implore me. I feel his stinging disappointment. I look away; I can’t risk going short today.
The bus pulls up, the driver sees the service badge hidden on my lapel and salutes. People will be doing that all day. Coin by coin, I slide my fare into the hopper. I need seventy-six cents left over, seventy-six cents exactly. The fare is four dollars. I have four fifty. Now it’s my turn to plead. Hiding the seventy-six cents in my fist, I turn to the bus driver who shrugs.
“Where ya heading, pal?”
“All right. Get on.”
He jerks a thumb to the back. I shuffle to my seat and lean against the humming window. The bus whooshes off as I turn the coins over in my pocket, my fingers simmering in the coppery sweat smell. My last look at the interchange sees the scruffy vet pad away, his shoulders sunken. The three coins slide against each other. I try not to think how his need is greater than mine.
Wait, there are only three coins. I count them to be sure. The dime has swum away. Panic swells and a sweat breaks over my brow. I need all four. I stand up sharply and grab ahold of a handrail. The bus spins around a corner. There on the grimy floor, my only dime is rolling away. I dive after it and lodge it in my wallet. It sits next to a photo of Curtis.
I first met Curtis at basic. The rigor of training is designed to form a group out of a rabble of men. Thanks to its pressures, we became as close as the change I’m rubbing together. He was far from my only friend in the unit — I still see the other guys occasionally — but the keen sense of loss I felt when Curtis was gone has never dulled. You never get used to the death of a close friend or family member. It never gets easier. Whenever even the slightest moment reminds me that he isn’t here anymore, I can replicate imaginary conversations we might have had. His death has robbed me of them.
The bus stops outside the cemetery and I pass through its gates and pillars. From memory, I track the grid of white headstones to where Curtis’s memorial is laid. The air is hung with the scent of fresh flowers left by still-grieving family members. They too know that these scars never heal. On a few of the white granite slabs, coins are laid.
At Curtis’s grave, I stop. A service is being conducted on the hillside. Strains of the priest’s final address drift through the trees. I fish the loose change from my pockets and pay my respects. I read once that the Ancient Greeks used to lay coins covering the eyes of the deceased. The Romans placed them over the tongue. These obols were to pay the dread ferryman so that they could cross the river which bounds the realms of the living and the dead. It’s a service tradition to place these on the headstones of those who’ve gone before us, to let their families know that their grateful colleagues are still thinking of them.
The first is a penny, to let them know you visited. Many of the headstones are bearing pennies today, alongside medals and bouquets. One young woman a ways off is washing the tomb with a sponge. I ignore her. These are private observances. The memorial service reading meets my ears. The priest’s intonation is sombre. They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
A nickel symbolises the time you spent at training together. Curtis was the troop clown, the loudest to laugh. We got each other into so much trouble. He would scarcely recognise the weary face I bear today, though he might know that some of the laughter lines were his gift. As I have been left to wrinkle and grey, he is trapped in my head as a young man; his vitality is suspended in amber forever. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
Aw shucks, here come the tears. I served alongside Curtis, so the next coin is a dime. The elusive ten-cent piece clinks on top of the other two. I can hear sobbing as I try to hold back my grief. It simmers inside me. Our first tour was rough. Neither of us had ever been so far away from home for so long. We were as young then as I am old now. I’ve avoided the usual barbs of booze and drugs. There are still some nights were I wake in a sweat, but how can I describe those relived moments to those who weren’t there? At the going down of the sun and in the morning—
My quarter is the last coin. It is a special token, a badge to say I was there. I remember the moment when life was snuffed out, the split moment when living flesh, rended, fell still. His body caught by a single round, a sniper unseen on the rooftop in some unnamed desert village. An inch to the left and he might have made it. The light in his eyes faded, I knew he was gone. We will remember them.
George Aitch is a writer from Blackheath, London. You may find his work in print and online in places such as Storgy, Litro, Confluence and The Crazy Oik. His essay ‘What Do You Do When It All Goes Wrong’ was recently shortlisted by Ascona.
The quoted poem is, of course, the “Ode of Remembrance” — the fourth stanza of “For the Fallen” by Lawrence Binyon.